Awards ceremonies can serve to signal, support and cement existing trends. This year’s Tony Awards were no different. New writing is in a rich vein of form in the UK and continued its impressive run at the US’ most prestigious theatre awards, with The Ferryman by Jez Butterworth winning best new play.
Since 2006, when Alan Bennett won for The History Boys, UK-originated plays have taken home half of the 14 best new play awards on offer in New York. Over the same period, only one US-originated play (Clybourne Park) has won the best play category at the Oliviers and only one British musical (Billy Elliot) has won the best new musical Tony.
If Butterworth’s Tony was a win for continuity of sorts, the most striking, and welcome, challenge to the status quo was in the category of best performance by an actress in a featured role in a musical, in which Ali Stroker became the first actor who uses a wheelchair to win a Tony award.
This was a truly historic moment. It made me wonder when we would see a similar first at the Oliviers, but also what has happened to the superb, inclusive revival of the musical Tommy that premiered at Theatre Royal Stratford East in 2017 and had at one time been rumoured for a West End transfer.
Elsewhere in the UK, there was a sharp reminder that hard-won progress can be fragile. In 2017, Jon Brittain’s Rotterdam became the first transgender-themed play to win an Olivier, a win that helped give it the opportunity to tour the UK.
Speaking before the tour started earlier this year, Lucy Jane Parkinson – who plays the lead role of Adrian in the production and was one of two actors to be assaulted in a homophobic attack this week – was optimistic about what the tour might achieve. They underlined their desire to play to audiences from outside the LGBT+ community. Parkinson said: “Theatre opens people up to new ways of being. It offers an insight into relationships and shows people it’s not just about choosing a bathroom or all this bollocks you read in the newspapers. It’s not a choice at all…There’s this awakening to there being things beyond a binary way of life. There was resistance for so long.”
If Rotterdam’s Olivier was a happy signal of how far parts of society have come in embracing inclusivity, this week’s events in Southampton show how far others still have to go. But they also underline Rotterdam’s importance and why it’s absolutely crucial that it plays to as wide an audience as possible.
Alistair Smith is the editor of The Stage. Read his latest weekly column at thestage.co.uk/author/alistair-smith